Our recent tour of Japan was food-focused, though we spent most hours walking off the food, visiting some great sites and soaking in the beauty of Japan. Japan really knows a thing or two when it comes to food, with great care and attention paid to flavors and the artistry of dishes. With small cooking spaces in homes, restaurant dining is a big part of daily life. There are apparently about 80,000 restaurants in Tokyo compared to 15,000 in New York. Service is another fascinating aspect of the dining process. Even the hole-in-the-wall establishment takes pride in welcoming you and seems to care deeply about what they are doing. Anyway...on to the food...
Sukiyaki dinner (and Shabu Shabu)
Sukiyaki is meat (usually thinly sliced, high quality...in this case, melt-in-your-mouth Wagyu) and vegetables which are simmered at the table in a sweet, soy-based sauce (typically soy, mirin, sugar). It is usually served in/with a bowl of raw, beaten egg to dip/compliment the sweet sauce. We each tried it with the egg and then Bryan did the rest of his without. I decided to continue with the raw egg (this is one I doubt I'd try in China, or even the U.S.). It is absolutely sublime--the sweet sauce and rich egg with the delicious beef and vegetables. And, of course, everything was artistically prepared by our waitress/chef.
Our guide went with a slightly smaller meal of shabu shabu, which is essentially Japanese hot pot (meat and veggies self-cooked at a pot on the table).
After a morning visit to Tsukiji fish market (a trip highlight), we attended a sushi class. This school does long courses to train fine sushi chefs, as well as these highlight courses for tourists/locals who want to learn some techniques. We first learned to fillet a small "Jack" fish...not as easy as they make it look. But, with some help from the teachers, we managed to come away with some reasonable pieces for our sushi and sashimi.
Next, we watched our teacher demonstrate making some vegetable rolls. You have to handle the nori (seaweed) and rice just right or you end up with a mess (mine was decent, but let's just say I could use some work).
And, our final lesson was on making nigiri as well as a small roll with some rice and roe in it (I had been eyeing the gorgeous fish roe in the market all morning so I was looking forward to eating that one). Again, you would think putting some fish on a piece of rice would be simple, but they just make it look that way.
|Our "proud" teacher|
|The finished product aka lunch (someone is clearly more cut out for this)|
After our efforts and cleanup, we got to enjoy the fruits of our labor along with some miso soup and tea. Since Bryan isn't big on the raw stuff, we enjoyed the ibi (shrimp--cooked) and miso soup and shared the rest with our guide. We filled him up with some department store yakitori later. The quality of the fish was superb and even though my efforts weren't so artistic, the results were tasty (I was reminded of the time I ate rubbery squid and nearly choked at a sushi restaurant in Florida when I tasted the fresh and silky squid here--the ingredients really have to be perfect for sushi).
Noodles (Ramen, Soba and Udon)
People will tell you Japan is expensive, but there are many ways to save costs. Of course, you can eat high end sushi and Kobe beef, but you can get some of the most tasty and filling noodle meals, snacks and yakitori for fast-food meal prices.
We tucked in to a popular lunch spot for ramen in Tokyo. As with many ramen stores, there is a ticket machine where you pick your dish and extras (there are sometimes pictures, but the buttons are typically written, so this can be a tough one for non-Japanese speakers). This place had a line out the door and our guide explained they give up to two free extra servings of noodles plus rice with your ramen broth so students love this place (one bowl will completely fill you up, but can you imagine anything better for a hungry college guy than 3 bowls of ramen for about $7?). You wait for a space, sit at the counter and slurp up your noodles. There are different styles of ramen, some with a lighter broth, some more strong with soy (typical Tokyo style) and the rich pork broth that was served here (though our guide had a spicy, curry style). It was amazingly rich but I particularly enjoyed it with a bunch of the pickled ginger they had for accompaniment as it cut the richness a bit and added a spicy zing.
We went to a famous spot for soba noodles one evening in the Ginza district of Tokyo which has been around for hundreds of years. Soba are thin noodles made of buckwheat flour and can be served cold with dipping sauce or in a hot soup. Our guide suggested the hot soup as it's easier to eat, though we also tasted the cold noodles later at our kaiseki dinner (and we're not bad with chopsticks...we live in China!). Soba can have various percentages of buckwheat and thus varies in quality. This place obviously knew their stuff and we got the noodles with prawn tempura on top...perfection! I always though Udon was my favorite Japanese noodle, but I fell in love with the wheaty soba noodles. I think I have a new favorite!
We had a great udon lunch (no pictures) when we stopped quickly in Saga Arashiyama during sightseeing. In the Kyoto area, the broths tend to be lighter which was a bit different from what I was used to, but still tasty. I still love the thick, slightly chewy texture of udon. Who needs sandwiches when you can have lunches like these?
Tonkatsu (and other fried goodies)
Tonkatsu is a deep fried pork cutlet, a treat which is immensely popular in Shanghai as we see tonkatsu restaurants all around. We went to a small restaurant in the ultra-modern Kyoto train station (complete with hotel, mall, and hundreds of restaurants including a "ramen amusement park", which is really just a bunch of ramen places in all styles). They serve the pork cutlet (you can choose pork fillet or loin) with big piles of shredded cabbage, rice (a nice mix with some millet wheat in it) and miso soup. They serve a vinegary dressing for the cabbage and it makes a perfect compliment for the fried pork. The tonkatsu is served with a special dipping sauce. I got one of their seasonal specialties which was a vegetable roll (various veggies rolled up and fried in the tonkatsu batter) along with some of the pork.
Not being a big pork fan, I thought I'd give it a try since it is so popular, and if nothing else I could eat the other items. Once again, not surprisingly, Japanese cooking won me over. The batter is light and crunchy, it is not oily and the meat is very tender. I was glad I had the veggie rolls and cabbage, though, as I still can only eat so much fried pork.
Japanese fried foods are all together pretty amazing, though. Many of us have tasted and grown to love tempura. It is popular all over Japan, whether on its own or served with noodles. You will quickly notice that in Japan, restaurants tend to specialize. They pick one thing (though often with many variations) and do it well. So, you go to the tonkatsu restaurant, the tempura place, the yakitori bar or the ramen shop.
Our other fried food outing was on our last evening when our guide treated us to kushi age (or kushikatsu) which is basically fried stuff on sticks. As with Spanish pinxtos, you save your sticks and they count those up to charge you. We had various meats, seafood (the prawn was a favorite) and vegetables. There were a few different sauces (a light ponzu, a thick soy-based sauce and a mustardy sauce--my favorite) and a bit of sea salt. For each item, they'd place it in the accompanying slot above so you knew the "recommended dip". Once again, the batter was light (panko) and nothing was oily. You were served a bowl of raw vegetables to compliment the fried items.
We also had a quick lunch of takoyaki (aka "octopus balls"), which are a ball-shaped snack made of batter, with bits of octopus inside. They were served up with a bit of thick, sweet sauce on them...the perfect snack!
Kaiseki is a traditional multi-course Japanese meal, a true fine dining experience showcasing the chef's talent and artistry. We went to a beautiful little restaurant, Sakura, in Kyoto (I came out to meet our guide and she was having a very animated phone call...turns out she had booked for the wrong night, but the chef was able to accommodate us as it was slow...good thing she called to confirm).
The menu was presented in beautiful calligraphy (they present a hand-written menu done each day with the freshest ingredients and chef's special techniques).
Even the sake was artfully presented. We then began our journey through several small courses, each almost too beautiful to eat but equally tasty.
We had various sashimi and vegetables, as well as a delicious kobe beef, which the chef prepares by wrapping in bamboo leaves (I think?) overnight. There was not one thing that didn't taste delicious, but it was even more impressive for the skill and care with which everything was prepared. The chef visited our table several times throughout the evening, sharing greetings, checking on us and telling us a little bit about the dishes. He had moved to this location in recent years, but his restaurant dates back to his father's time. We were personally escorted out with continued thanks from him, and our waiter walked us down the street to our next destination. The service culture in Japan is second to none!
Tofu at the temple
In Kyoto, we tried one of the famous lunches near the temples. There are many restaurants specializing in tofu (apropos for the Buddhist lifestyle) and we visited a place with a serene setting just outside the the Nanzenji temple.
|We sat on the mats with a view out to the gardens|
The meal is really many little vegetarian items, with a variety of vegetables, soup, rice...all quite beautifully prepared. The main item, the tofu, is cooked in a pot on the table. You use a little ladle to get each piece out and then dip it in a strong soy sauce (in which you can add ginger, seaweed and other spices). It was the most silken, perfect tofu I have ever tasted. Being tofu, of course, there is little flavor to it, but I loved it dipped in the sauce. And, it was a lot of tofu. We couldn't finish it and felt like we really needed to "walk off" our tofu lunch...something I never thought I'd say.
Our meat eater was not won over to tofu and both he and our guide agreed they don't really "get the point" of tofu unless you're vegetarian. But, if you're going to have tofu you might as well do it right and this meal and setting were a perfect zen experience.
On the flip side, there was...
We stayed in Kobe, so clearly this was a must. And, yes it does live up to the hype.
It was done teppanyaki style (don't picture Benihana with knives flying and flaming onions). The chef started with toasting up garlic chips (to the left of the beef below) and skillfully prepared all of our items in front of us. I had lobster...clearly fresh as it was twitching away when placed on the grill (ok, a little disconcerting but who can say whether being boiled alive or chopped up is worse?). It was as tasty as it was fresh and they even took the pieces that are hard to get meat from and made me a soup.
The beef was absolutely melt-in-your-mouth silky. This was definitely the highlight for our meat eater!
This dish is most known in Kansai/Osaka and the Hiroshima areas, though it is eaten throughout the country. It is a savory "pancake" with a variety of ingredients, typically cooked yourself or by the waiter on a grilling surface in front of you. I started to order the seafood version but changed my mind and went with the "cheese and potato" version. Our guide was pleased and said this was "the most popular" locally (I see why--yum!). The pancake is really more cabbage than anything else. The waitress brought a big bowl filled with cabbage, and egg (some flour was probably in there as well but a small proportion) which she expertly mixed and then turned over on to the grill. She had a real technique as the ingredients seemed massive (I'm imagining my pancake would have been more a scattered, smothered Waffle House hash brown if I cooked it).
|The almost finished product (alongside fried noodles and an omelet for the rest of the table)|
As it cooks, it starts to form the more pancake-like consistency and eventually the waitress comes and (expertly, again) flips it and then checks in again to test it. When finally done, she plated it and doused it with sauce (one being a sweet sauce, like terriyaki but thicker/sweeter and some Japanese mayo). The waitress also brought by optional bonito flakes and I had her add some (bonito flakes are just fun to watch if nothing else!). I saw okonomayaki called "Osaka soul food" somewhere and that seems an apt description. It was completely addicting, though I refrained from eating it all as I felt like I would be weighted down for the rest of our touring day. It honestly was not quite as heavy as it sounds though, since the large portion was cabbage. There was just the right amount of egg/batter and they put just a small bit of cheese in it.
This tour certainly fulfilled all my food dreams of Japan. We spent a good 6 hours each day walking around between various sites, so we managed to work up the appetite to enjoy all these treats. It was especially nice having a guide to not only point us to great establishments (and handle reservations/details) but also to explain different aspects of the meals/specialties. You would think I would have had my fill of Japanese food for a while, but all I can say is that I am glad it is easy to find many Japanese specialties in Shanghai because my appetite was only stoked.